All entries for September 2010

September 26, 2010

The Tragedy of Hoffman @ Magdalen College, Oxford

Writing about Hoffman Symposium, Magdalen College, Oxford from The Shakespeare apocrypha

Seeing a rehearsed reading mounted by an academic society for an academic conference allows for some bizarre moments. One image from Elisabeth Dutton's The Tragedy of Hoffman will stay with me for a long time, as it featured some of the academics whose work I most admire: Laurie Maguire, Katherine Duncan-Jones and Lois Potter as enlisted soldiers frogmarching in time to the barked orders of Old Stilt, played by Richard Proudfoot. While amusing, it perhaps also testifies to the fact that this reading, despite being rehearsed in a little over twenty-four hours, was something of a labour of love for those involved, a long-awaited chance to see a neglected but eminently stageworthy tragedy finally put on its feet.

I shouldn't give the impression that this was a "jolly" of any description though: Dutton's production boasted an exceptional cast (one, Brian McMahon as Mathias, even off-book) and a fully-staged, full-length version of the text, based on John Jowett's little-known Nottingham edition. Interestingly, the consistency of character names was thorough but unmatched: where the beginning and end of the quarto refers to "Hoffman" and "Otho", and the middle uses "Sarlois" and "Charles", this production (and presumably Jowett's text) used "Hoffman" and "Charles" throughout.

The production even stretched to thunder and lightning effects in the opening scene, and two skeletons (one real) had been procured to stand for the bodies of Hoffman's father and Charles. The skeletons exerted a powerful effect on the production, drawing both audience and actors inexorably towards them and appearing to govern action and response. As Dutton later noted, the fact that one was real and thus extremely fragile meant that the actors had to work around the prop, rather than vice versa; but the effect was to heighten the sense of reverence that Hoffman felt for his father, while at the same time accentuating the horror of his actions. At one point, as he announced he would walk hand in hand with his father to revenge, he actually clasped the hand of the skeleton in an act of twisted tenderness; and later, he draped an arm casually around Charles's skeleton. Hoffman's familiarity and ease with death spoke, not of disrespect, but rather of a morbid fascination that rendered his subsequent actions all the more unpredictable.

Dominik Kracmar's wonderful performance as Hoffman began with the offstage screech of hysterical laughter as he banished his melancholy. What stood out for me in Kracmar's reading was the joy he took in the character's double-backing and knowing trickery: as his accusations of treachery against Rodorick were proven false, for example, his eyes bulged with momentary hesitation before he proclaimed that "there is villainy, practice and villainy!" Engaged with the audience at all times, his shrugs and ironic delivery created a metadramatic tone that served the production well: rather than mock the conventions of revenge tragedy, this production simply showed a self-conscious awareness of its own performativity, allowing it to be amusing without approaching self-ridicule. Kracmar was crucial to this, but at the same time his partial dissociation from the main action (the various courtiers were particularly "inward-looking", concerned with their own reactions and losses rather than any larger narrative, which made sense of how easily Hoffman achieved his political ambitions) rendered him a somewhat lonely figure, often watching from the sides as fathers grieved and children died.

Kracmar was supported - and very nearly upstaged - by Nicholas Shrimpton's Lorrique, an older Cockney villain with a great line in evil cackles. Lorrique matched his master's metatheatricality, even to the point of lifting his French disguise to wink at the audience before commencing his scene with Jerome. Treading the fine line between comic servant and sinister assistant with considerable skill, Shrimpton turned Lorrique into a compelling protagonist, an amoral villain with a clear sense of his own identity. His affectation of abused innocence was especially effective, ingratiating him convincingly with the court while continuing to plot in the audience's hearing. Yet he and his master were also human in their scheming, and fallible: twice in the play, an "aside" is actually overheard by an onstage character, and on both occasions (Hoffman reassuring Charles; Lorrique hastily backpedalling under the rage of his master) genuine comedy and dramatic tension was found as these villains attempted desperately to account for themselves. Where the play appears to recommend itself on its action, in practice it was the fast tongues of both Hoffman and Lorrique that kept me rivetted.

In another pleasant surprise, the third dominant personality was Martha, played by Edwina Christie, despite only entering the play in its final third. Emerging dramatically from the audience along with her ladies, and standing in a spotlight, clad in black, the impact of this character's introduction was strikingly felt. Martha was the only person with the self-awareness and wit to be able to understand and counter the treachery of Hoffman and Lorrique, and so she entered as a type of nemesis; a quietly poised and self-possessed personality who, even before Hoffman appeared, was clearly too significant for him to be able to dispatch. Christie's strong performance emphasised Martha's subtle manipulation of the murderers, particularly as she gently "seduced" Hoffman in order to draw him into an ambush.

The middle section of the play was partly taken up with the comic subplot of Jerome's insurrection. Kelley Costigan's fantastically-costumed Jerome was every inch the stage braggart: striding about, gesturing wildly and allowing no word of conversation to pass without his comment. In a tour de force performance, he engaged in a long and affectionate discourse with his toy horse (that, reversed, served as a sword), defied everyone else on stage and generally added colour and comic value. Yet, in Costigan's performance, something a little more pathetic could also be glimpsed; the loneliness and desperation of a son disinherited by his father, and there was a note - just a note - of poignancy in his death. She was ably supported by Stephen Longstaffe's Stilt, who stood out in his final simple pleas before execution, convinced in his twisted worldview that his actions were in some way understandable.

The appropriation of self-consciously theatrical types throughout, as in Costigan and Kracmar's performances, fed into the love-plot too. The flight of David Kennerley's Lodowick and Sarah Anson's Lucibella was made into a very amusing sequence: dressed in ludicrous Grecian costumes, they lay on an arbour and delivered over the top promises of fidelity to each other before falling asleep on rich cushions. While the revenge plot overtook the romance motifs, however, Anson brought something very interesting out of Lucibella in her later madness, particularly after reappearing in Charles's clothes. She became a breeches part, boyish and strident, and active in drawing the counter-revengers into her service. While the body-count in this play is particularly high, I was struck by how many of the main cast were still alive at the end to surround and subdue Hoffman; what kind of society, one wonders, is implied by the survival of the doddery Saxony, the once-traitorous Rodorick, the cross-dressed Lucibella and the suicical Mathias?

What were the weaknesses of the production? Well, the fact that this was a reading meant that some of the more involved pieces of physical action (particularly Hoffman secretly stabbing Austria) were difficult to pull off, though in the context this hardly mattered. I was also struck by how long and inert certain scenes of the play are, particularly that in which Lorrique recaps the entire plot for his onstage audience - and he's a far less interesting character once he has his change of heart! It's inevitable, in a play so rarely performed, that putting it on its feet will reveal not only the strengths but also the reasons why it perhaps doesn't work so well on the modern stage, but it was great to at least see action tried out, even if a full production would probably cut it.

Other issues inherent in the text were drawn out. How is, for example, Lorrique meant to get a burning crown onto Charles's head in the opening scene - a powerful and shocking opening to the play. Here, it became a semi-comic routine as Lorrique attempted to drop it onto his head from a shovel, before picking it up from the floor with "burning" fingers. It was also noted, later in the day, how effective the characters' rhetoric remains even while their brains are being burned out! Despite the play being apparently incomplete in the extant version, the company aimed to "finish" the play by having Hoffman don the burning crown during his final two speeches, spoken as he clutched at the torture device. From my point of view, this worked absolutely fine. In a play that is so resolutely about the central character, having Hoffman kneel and curse his persecutors as his brains are fried out seemed a powerful and fitting, if unconventional, close. It's a crying shame that the production only got this one airing, but with a bit of luck, the availability of a cheap, modernised text in Emma Smith's forthcoming edition will allow more amateur and professional troupes to rediscover this thoroughly entertaining play.


September 11, 2010

The Spanish Tragedy (Planet Theatre Productions) @ The Rose, Bankside

Writing about web page http://www.planettheatreproductions.co.uk/

Or perhaps that should be The Spanish Comedy; for Adrian Brown’s new production of Kyd’s epochal play understood the play primarily through burlesque. To render Elizabethan revenge tragedies disproportionately comic is, of course, a standard modern strategy, often used to great effect in productions of Titus Andronicus and even Hamlet, as well as to great effect in the Rose’s recent production of Soliman and Perseda. Here, though, a heavily-edited and self-consciously “funny” production came perilously close to stripping the play of its power.

It started unpromisingly. Sean Garvey’s Revenge entered amid a cloud of smoke, masked and in a black robe, with a staff atop which stood an illuminated skull. Don Andrea was cut, and in his place Revenge became a direct Chorus figure for the audience. The edited text (“I come to tell the story of Don Andrea” etc.) smacked of Jackanory rather than the depths of hell, not helped by Garvey’s gentle, meek vocal delivery and continuous vague hand gestures. With the Chorus so conversational, the framing device lost much of its impact. Happily, this was redeemed by interesting use of Revenge throughout the action of the main play: here fixing Bel-Imperia’s letter to a tree for Hieronimo to find; there taking on the role of the hangman for Pedringano; later stamping his staff to begin the final interlude. These scenes, casting Revenge as an active participant in the tragedy, hinted pleasingly at the greater significance of events, and mitigated somewhat the pointlessness of his storytelling in Kyd’s Chorus scenes.

The heavily edited text cut the Portugese sub-plot entirely and avoided the 1602 additions. Generally the cuts were minor, serving to streamline the action at the expense of some of the more complex political matter; the removal of Castile, for example, simplified the family dynamics while losing the symmetry of the two fathers. One more disappointing omission was the early masque conducted by Hieronimo, which might have made his decision to stage a play for the finale seem a little less unexpected and comical (it drew large laughs). Interestingly, though, the King still commended Hieronimo for his “device” – here, Hieronimo took on the role of the General in reporting the action of war, and the “device” he was commended for was his negotiation of terms of peace between the two countries.

The play was marketed on the strength of Hayward Morse as Hieronimo (“Planet Theatre Productions Presents Hayward Morse in The Spanish Tragedy,” to be precise), and Morse brought a dignity and powerful delivery to the role that anchored the production. He was most affecting as he fought to shout across the wide stage to the King with his petition; rebutted by the more powerful Lorenzo, he dithered in a meekly apologetic manner, before screaming out again at the mention of his son. Morse resisted the urge to make the part histrionic, instead internalising much of his grief and allowing it to manifest itself in the quiet humour that spoke of the mental breakdown within. He was ably balanced by Jan Hirst as Isabella, who relished the more physical and anguished raving that culminated in a great scene, hacking at the tree from which Horatio was hanged until, finally, the top branches fell away (though she left the stage without killing herself, denying her a proper climax). The two showed a mutual tenderness even in their shared insanity, clawing at each other for comfort and restraint.

This serious dynamic was played out on a larger scale at the start of the play, complemented by Barra Collins’s excellent Horatio, a well-spoken and evocative performance that left one with a genuine sense of loss after his murder. The relationship between Horatio and Hieronimo was foregrounded, the two constantly clapping hands on backs and standing together. The early dispute between Horatio and Lorenzo, the former backed up by his father, was one of the best dramatic stand-offs of the performance, the two presenting themselves as equal in merit with tension undercutting their friendship.

The other source of serious interest was Rosy Langlands’s Bel-Imperia. Following the aesthetic of the Spanish costumes, Langlands was a fiery Spaniard in red and black, all long flowing hair and scowls that could kill at twenty paces. This Bel-Imperia was neither good nor innocent: she was a tempestuous and independent revenger, whose lines dripped with disdain and scorn throughout, and whose scenes with Horatio smouldered with passion. While fascinating to watch, and desperately needed to counter the comic vein elsewhere, her aggressiveness was taken too far at times. Her “love” for the absent Andrea came across as utterly insincere at the start, giving the impression of a Machiavellian temptress who had only pretended to love Andrea in order to snare Horatio, which occasioned (presumably unwanted) laughter; and she only ever manifested anger and hatred in respect to the murders of her lovers, never a sense of loss or sadness, which left her lacking a dimension. Her rage, though, effectively put the fear of God into everyone who crossed her.

This also allowed for some comic business with the boys. Nic Choulman played Balthazar as out-and-out fop, a cowardly idiot and the main comic relief of the piece. Whether dithering as he tried to express love, crawling out from his hiding place in rage at Horatio and Bel-Imperia’s liaison (in a crude homage to Twelfth Night) or strutting in the new crown gifted him by his father, Choulman’s Balthazar was a harmless fool – at least, until his participation in Horatio’s murder. It was left to Richard Gee as Lorenzo to be the moustache-twirling villain, emphasising the character’s scheming and violent tendencies towards his sister. The dynamic was reasonably effective, but once established it changed little for the rest of the play, and turned the two into a villainous comic double-act rather than a particularly challenging threat. Both (especially Balthazar) were cowed and subdued by the far more terrifying Bel-Imperia, contributing to an even greater comic dynamic in scenes between the three.

With so much of the tragic plot rendered lighter than expected, it was no surprise that the comic scenes were played to full advantage, from Barra Collins’s frenetic Irish Page, gleefully revelling in the plot of the empty box, to the black-robed bickering watchmen, to Clive Greenwood’s swaggering brigand Pedringano.  This villain provided the necessary muscle for the princes, and exhibited an entertaining self-confidence that provided a great build-up for his arraignment. Employing a variety of contemporary gestures of defiance, one of the production’s most powerful sequences saw him laughing in the face of Revenge, standing in for the hangman, an ironic display of self-assurance even as fate drew in on him. Quite why the production then allowed Pedringano to leave without seeing the empty box (usually added as the dramatic pay-off for the long build-up) is a complete mystery to me, as the scene ended in media res rather than capitalising on its excellent set-up.

More amusement was found in Raymond Daniel-Davies’s avuncular King of Spain, presenting himself as everyone’s friend but with a fantastic undercurrent of tyranny, most brilliantly as the Viceroy bent to kiss his hand, which the King immediately lowered in order to force the Viceroy to kneel. He delighted in taunting Balthazar and the Portugese ambassador, and displayed an angry frustration with the wilful Bel-Imperia. It was only in the final scene that his jolly façade cracked as he cradled the body of his dead nephew.

It was in the denouement that the comedy finally went too far. It had been prepared for with farcical business as Hieronimo read the plot to his actors: Bel-Imperia, Lorenzo and Balthazar exaggerated their lack of understanding of it, inserting concerted “uhs?” and “aaahs” in response to the story of Soliman and Perseda (incidentally, fascinating to see having seen Kyd’s full-length version of the latter play in the same space only a couple of months earlier). More cheap laughs were bought as Bel-Imperia and Lorenzo looked at their modest parts, while Balthazar’s scroll rolled out yard after yard onto the floor.

For the performance itself, a mobile stage with red curtain was dragged in, and the action of the play was conducted in a series of tableaux and quick motions. The badness of the action was played up, along with a whole series of missed and pre-empted cues, forgotten lines, checking of parts, audience interruptions, shushing and costume malfunctions. The effect was to turn the final performance into a riff on the Mechanicals’ Pyramus and Thisbe. While the point of this was clearly to justify the comic spirit that allowed the play to continue with the murders undiscovered, and to exaggerate by contrast the impact of Bel-Imperia’s suicide, it took things too far into self-parody, leaving the lingering impression of a comedy with a bleak ending. However, Langlands’s desperate locking of eyes with Morse before she stabbed herself was one of the play’s most genuinely powerful moments, and the final display of bodies – added to as the dusty body of Horatio was dragged from under the mobile stage in a neat symbolic moment – allowed Morse to conduct his final speeches in the appropriate environment before biting out his tongue.

There were niggles, mostly occasioned by a lack of trust in the structures of revenge tragedy that made the play so successful in its own time. Ironic laughs were exchanged for farce; complex character machinations were simplified into broad brush-strokes; and the drastic alteration of the Chorus scenes killed their effect. Yet the play retained its power, and in Morse’s performance, Hieronimo remained a wonderful study of grief and its effects. This was a thoroughly entertaining take on Kyd, with some strong performances and interesting dynamics, and a worthy complement to the ongoing Rose project of reclaiming its earlier repertory.


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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.


The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.


Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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